There are many things that I love about being Ramat Shalom’s rabbi, one being the diversity of opinions that make up our congregation. This diversity applies to many things in our lives, including politics. I have and will continue to engage in meaningful, respectful debates with many of you about the events taking place in Washington. As these debates take place, my commitment to being your rabbi will never be affected. I have tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully, to steer clear of politics. But the chaos we find ourselves in right now as a nation makes it necessary for me to respond in a way that I usually do not. As your rabbi, I have my own thoughts, opinions and reflections on this chaos. As a Jewish leader and teacher, I feel compelled to share these thoughts, opinions and reflections. I have appreciated that the Ramat Shalom community has always encouraged me to speak openly. I understand and respect that my comments below do not reflect everyone who makes up our community. These are my comments and my comments alone. I welcome your responses and sincerely hope that, as a sacred community, we can, despite our differences, rise above the chaos and, hopefully, play a role in healing the political divide.
In Pirkei Avot, the ancient collection of teachings that form the foundation of Jewish ethics, there’s a grim tale detailing how the Jewish sage Hillel saw a skull floating in the water. Hillel said to the skull, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.” (Pirkei Avot 2:6)
While it’s unlikely that Hillel actually saw or spoke to a floating skull, his words have been preserved a venerable Jewish warning: our actions have consequences. If we speak or act violently, we will play in role in building a dangerous society and this society will bring about our demise.
Do not despair, however! There’s good news. In response to Hillel’s warning, the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides explains that “anyone who teaches a virtue (and, as a result) creates a good action…a benefit of that action will reach him.” If we behave in ways that promote goodness, we will do our part to create a world filled with wisdom, love and justice and these things will lift us all up.
Unfortunately, the news of the day makes it necessary to return to the floating skull…
As a nation, we’ve watched the horrific consequences of President Trump and his team’s dangerous rhetoric explode in our Capitol. For those who do not like this last sentence, let’s remember that President Trump has admitted he is at least partially to blame for what transpired last Wednesday. I respect that we do not all see eye to eye when it comes to recent events in Washington. This being said, what I’ve watched transpire in our nation’s capital has been a tragic reminder that Hillel’s warning about our actions having consequences has been ignored and, as a result, we’re bracing for the possibility of more violence in the coming days.
As Judaism evolved over the centuries, Hillel’s warning was never seen as enough to prevent people from damaging society. This is why, since biblical times, our tradition has established a legal and moral code that promotes rewarding constructive behavior and punishing destructive behavior. Judaism’s understanding that rewards and punishments are a necessary part of a functional society influenced the creation of the U.S. legal system which is grounded in our Constitution.
The impeachment process, as detailed in the Constitution, was created not only as a way to punish an elected official for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but to remove a leader guilty of one or more of these crimes and stop him/her from doing further harm to our country. (Article II, Section 4) This week, a majority of Congressional Representatives voted to impeach President Trump for incitement of insurrection. While many across the country, including some of you, are opposed to this vote, the 232 members of Congress, including 10 Republicans, who voted to impeach engaged in a democratic, bipartisan process designed to ensure law and order here in America.
Hillel warned us two thousand years ago that our behavior has consequences. Additionally, Judaism has for centuries insisted that when our behavior and resulting consequences are deemed to have jeopardized the well-being of society and/or violated the laws we have in place, action must be taken against those who have threatened the community. As a proud, patriotic American, I am angry, heartbroken and embarrassed that Congress has yet again impeached President Trump. However, as a Jewish leader who has always taken a strong stance against hate and violence and worked tirelessly to promote pluralism and civil discourse, I say kol hakavod (all due respect) to the 10 Republicans and 222 Democrats who have taken an important step to ensure that our great country does not become a place where skulls float in our waters.
I hope that the statement President Trump released following his impeachment in which he condemned violence and called for calm makes a difference. May the inauguration of President-elect Biden truly be a peaceful transition of power. All of us, no matter who we voted for in November, deserve this.